The final week of the Super 15 Rugby season is upon us, and with the knockout stage approaching, this week’s matches will set the tone for the chase for a title.
The week kicked off with two matches on Friday, both of which featured plenty of action and some late surprises.
In the first match of the day, the Canterbury Crusaders hung on long enough to tack on some late-match scoring and pull off a tremendous 25-17 win in a hard-fought battle.
The second contest held much of the same drama, as the Melbourne Rebels pulled off a late comeback to edge out the Otago Highlanders 38-37.
Let’s take a closer look at both matches and break down the biggest storylines from each Super 15 contest.
Canterbury Crusaders 25, Wellington Hurricanes 17
Despite taking an early lead on a Zac Guildford try, the Crusaders had to battle to retain their lead in the late going, eventually notching tries from Andy Ellis and Tom Marshall to pull away late in the contest.
While the Hurricanes played tremendous defense throughout the showdown, Canterbury certainly didn’t look like a budding title contender. If not for some late-match heroics, the Hurricanes may have run away with the victory in the second half.
One of the biggest stories of the contest was a series of questionable calls on the part of match officials, as some late penalties halted the Hurricanes’ momentum with scoring opportunities in their grasp.
Every Crusader try in the match came off turnovers, highlighting the sloppy mistakes that negated an otherwise tremendous performance from the Hurricanes. Wellington was led by a strong trio in Victor Vito, Brad Shields and Julian Savea, each with tries in the loss.
With the win, the Crusaders improved to 11-5 in their last 16 matches and face a potential matchup with either the Reds or the Cheetahs in the knockout stage.
Melbourne Rebels 38, Otago Highlanders 37
The second match of the day may not have meant much, but it featured just as much action as the day’s first contest.
With the Rebels and Highlanders both out of title contention, each team set out to defend its pride and come away with a hard-fought victory in its final match of the season.
It looked as if Otago would have it locked up, but the Rebels came roaring back in the final minutes of play to turn the tables and hand the Highlanders a stinging 38-37 defeat.
Otago got off to a strong start with four tries in the first half, but that momentum faded down the stretch. With James O’Connor entering the match in the second half, the Rebels picked up steam and relied on the flyhalf to set up three tries in the late going.
But it was Bryce Hegarty who would put the finishing touches on the comeback.
With a minute remaining and his team trailing by one, Hegarty hammered home his second try of the contest to secure the unlikely victory and give the Rebels their fifth win of the season—their highest win total in the last three years.
It may not have meant anything in relation to the title chase, but the win was a huge boost for a Melbourne team searching for a prideful victory in its final match.
With the loss, Otago finishes in 13th place in the league, left to look ahead to next season.